Writing heroes we love to hate and hate to love

Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, having an anti-hero character is becoming increasingly common. The reason is simple: anti-heroes, being much less determinedly honorable, are often easier to relate to. We see ourselves more easily in the anti-hero, someone who is far from perfect in a world that seems determined to make them miserable.

It’s here where a lot of confusion can start to crop up, because from where I’m sitting there’s a lot of overlap between the Reluctant Hero type and the Anti-Hero type. If you think about it, the anti-hero has plenty of reasons to be reluctant. Maybe they’ve done this before and don’t want to do it again. Maybe they know their abilities aren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t want to have to sit through another one of the hero’s “Love, Honor, Friendship” speeches for the 40th time. And it is within these insecurities and annoyances that we find a kind of camaraderie, a parallel in our day-to-day lives.

Do we have to save the world?

So you’ve got your anti-hero. She doesn’t want to save the world, and she’s being kind of a jerk about it already. But of course she has to go, otherwise you have no story and that simply won’t do. How do we motivate her? Let’s use that friend of all Tumblr geeks aficionados, the Alignment Chart:

Man I miss this show. Via tall-T on DeviantArt, see it here.

Your traditional hero would be in the Lawful Good or Neutral Good categories – both want to achieve a goal they see as being moral. The former’s focus on is on achieving that goal while following the rules, while the latter is more flexible on following the rules to achieve said goal. Your anti-hero, on the other hand, is probably going to fall either into one of the neutral categories, where their motivation has nothing to do with the morality of the goal in question, or they’ll be in the chaotic good category, where they do what needs to be done to achieve the moral good.

One of my favorite examples of a neutral anti-hero is Rincewind the Wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is described as being such a coward he’s gone all the way around to being a hero again. Rincewind isn’t a reluctant hero, he is adamant that he will not go on this quest, spending all his time and energy trying and failing to avoid confrontations that will require him to do anything remotely heroic. When he’s first introduced to us in The Color of Magic, he offers to help out a tourist visiting the city of Ankh-Morpork, only to find himself smack in the middle of an interstate diplomatic spat. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also induces our sympathy. Rincewind didn’t ask for this. He was just trying to do a nice thing (and yeah, okay, make some good money, fine. But that’s not a crime!) and now he’s on the hit list of a minister in a country he’s never even seen before.

(Or something along those lines. I’ll admit now that it’s been a while since I’ve read The Color of Magic.)

An anti-hero that’s a better fit under Chaotic Good is Jessica Jones of MarvelxNetflix’s (Marvflix?) Jessica Jones. Jessica, like Rincewind, is our protagonist, and she’s absolutely the hero in the sense that she has actual superhero powers. But again, she doesn’t want to be the hero. Given the choice, she would trade her powers and her trauma for a quiet life private detectiv-ing. But once she sees what must be done, she throws herself fully into stopping the psychotic and powerul killer on the loose. Once she’s made her decision, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Putting the parts together

So what does this tell us about effective anti-heros? They need to have a couple basic characteristics:

  • Personal reasons to root for them: In any story, we don’t just root for the good guy because they’re not the bad guy. This is not an election. We root for them because of some inherent characteristic within them that makes them “worthy” of the win. With Jessica, we want her to defeat Killgrave not only because he’s a terrible person and a murderer, but because we want Jessica to overcome her trauma. Jessica deserves to defeat him because of everything he did to her, and we sympathize with that. Yes, it is a revenge, but revenge is arguably the oldest and most relatable motive in history.
  • Ultimately be good people, for a given amount of goodness: Kris Noel writes that even the hero has to have a balance of negative and positive characteristics to make them real. This is of course true for the anti-hero as well. They can’t just be surly, unlovabale jerks who happen to be in the right place at the right time for our story. Take Rincewind: he’s a coward, and given a choice he would go home and let the world around him explode. But he’s also a humble, kindhearted, and helpful person, and definitely much less of selfish, short-sighted jerk than many of the other wizards we encounter over the course of Discworld. 
  • They have relationships that create human stakes: Someone needs to care if these people die. After all, if no one in the actual story cares about them, why should you? Jessica Jones has an adoptive sister who loves her and a kinda-sorta love interest. Rincewind has his friend the Librarian and the Luggage (which technically isn’t a person, but can still feel so it counts). Throughout his many adventures, he’s also able to make enough of a pathetic positive impression on people that someone somewhere will care enough to try to help him escape whoever’s chasing him this time. This is actually a crucial part of all Rincewind’s stories. Someone has to help hide him, because you can only run for so long.

Within these basic structures, there’s plenty of room to develop a character that drives your story. Maybe she’s more reluctant than anti, or more anti than reluctant. Maybe she’s the anti-hero of the bad guys, or the anti-hero of law enforcement. Go wild.

Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes in books, television, or movies? Comment below!